Boardwalk Empire episode 4 review: Anastasia

Paul remains intrigued by Boardwalk Empire, which picks up a little with its latest episode...

4. Anastasia

Boardwalk Empire is still very much finding its feet. The vast shadow cast by the influence of both Martin Scorsese’s gangster classics  and HBO’s acclaimed dramatic output is a legacy that would be difficult for any show to live up to. But sometimes it’s hard to tell exactly who is struggling the most with Boardwalk Empire during this, the show’s genesis period.

Is it the writers/showrunners in their attempts to establish the show’s unique tone and identity in a genre that has been mined with enormous success many times before? Or is it us, the viewers, who, as a result of over familiarity with Gangs Of New York, Deadwood and The Sopranos, are finding it hard to manage some stratospherically high expectations?

By the conclusion of Anastasia, it feels like our two factions might be working our way to a compromise.  It’s a very good episode, still flawed in places, and not a marquee, ‘wham episode’ that will completely win over all of its critics, but filled with enough good stuff to demonstrate that Boardwalk Empire is a show with ambition and ideas beyond being a pretty vanity piece for a group of creatives that have nothing left to prove to anyone.

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This week’s episode didn’t do much to move the plot along, but what it did do well was to establish what the show is all about: a nation in flux. The friction between the different factions vying for power in Atlantic City – blacks and the Ku Klux Klan, masters and servants, chauvinists and suffragettes, the law and the underworld – and the creeping feeling that the old guard is about to be replaced, informs the decisions of every character on the show.

It’s a fertile and interesting context for a gangster drama, and Anastasia did a good job of introducing and examining these themes in more detail than in previous episodes. It’s still hardly The Wire, but it was an engaging and exciting piece of television with a number of memorable moments.

The recurring motif of Anna Anderson, an impostor who successfully posed as the Russian heiress the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna for many years, was nicely implemented. The discovery of Anna’s fraudulence later in the episode nicely parallels the characters as they attempt to assume roles that aren’t necessarily a natural fit for them.

“Back home, people had ideas about what I was supposed to be,” says Jimmy to Pearl, a prostitute he has become close to as he attempts to adjust to life in the mob, working with Al Capone in Chicago. His anguished reaction when she is brutally disfigured by the member of a crew he and Al are feuding demonstrates that he maybe he isn’t the aloof, cold-hearted criminal he thinks he is.

Kelly Macdonald was finally given something a bit more interesting to do. Her dance with Nucky at his ‘surprise’ birthday party was well played and excellently shot, and her petulant shoplifting at the end of the episode was also a nice touch.

Nucky once more was given the thankless task of carrying most of the historical and contextual exposition for the episode, and it’s not easy to make political negotiating over road maintenance particularly interesting. Buscemi is eminently watchable, though, as always, and his longing look at Margaret as she left his party, the fantasy of their brief courtship dissolved, was very touching. I wasn’t convinced of the chemistry between Buscemi and Macdonald, but after this scene I’m on board. Nucky and Margaret FTW!!!11 (Am I doing this right?)

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Stephen Graham gave his most psychotic turn yet, and brought some nice moments of Pesci-esque scary funny-how humour to the episode, like his delighted shadow boxing while trying on some new threads with Jimmy, and his dark consolation to his partner after the attack on Pearl: “Don’t worry, it happened to me, and I’m still beautiful!”

The best moment of the episode, however, and probably the best moment of the series so far, was in Chalky White’s monologue to the head of the Ku Klux Klan, where he recalls how his father, a carpenter, was callously murdered by a gang of racist thugs.

I would expect that writers would say that the ‘hard-as-nails monologue’ is the easiest part of the script to write, but still. As hard-as-nails monologues go, this one was up there with Quint’s Minneapolis speech in Jaws, or Samuel L Jackson’s shepherd speech in Pulp Fiction, with an absolutely killer payoff line that is a real fist pumping F yes moment.

Last week I yearned for Michael K Williams to bring some of his laconic Omar charisma to the table to spice things up a bit, and boy does he ever deliver that in this episode.

Minor criticisms remain. The main plot(s) are moving too slowly, and some of the subplots are flirting with irrelevance (Lucky Luciano and Jimmy’s mum aka Benjamin Button? Where has this come from, where is it going, and why should I care?). Also Michael Pitt is still a bit of a snooze whenever he’s on screen. You can’t help but feel if the budget could accommodate DiCaprio he’d be out on his arse.

But the world of Boardwalk Empire really drew me back in this week after last week’s weak instalment. I’m slowly adjusting to the rhythm of the show, and I’m starting to finally gain some investment into the characters. Oh, and “I ain’t buildin’ no bookcase.”? It’s the new “I drink your milkshake!” You wait.

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Read our review of episode 3, Broadway Limited, here.

Follow Paul Martinovic on twitter: @paulmartinovic.